As the Cold War matured, the mission of Det A evolved, shifting gears to face a new threat that the Western World was unprepared for. In the early 1970’s there had been a rash of aircraft hijackings, many perpetrated by the Palestinian nationalists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP). The slowly escalating threat turned into a crucible for German authorities in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists belonging to a group calling themselves Black September took Israeli athletes hostage during the summer olympics in Munich. The German police attempted to bait the terrorists into an ambush, where they could be taken out by sniper fire without hurting the hostages, but the crisis ended in a massacre, with both terrorists and hostages slain.
The specter of international terrorism had reared its ugly head. The German federal police, wholly unprepared to deal with the threat, were tasked to create a counter-terrorism unit called GSG-9, commanded by Colonel Ulrich Wegener.
The Americans took a while longer to catch up but a few years later Detachment A was tasked with a new mission under OPLAN 0300: counter-terrorism. In addition to their stay behind mission, the Det A members now had to be prepared to carry out counter-terrorism operations. The main concern for the unit, was the hijacking of American Pan Am flights into and out of Berlin but Det A was also charged with protecting and capturing any other hijacked American aircraft in Europe. The Baader Meinhof gang also posed a threat in Det A’s area of operations, and one team from the unit was assigned the task of countering the communist terrorist organization, especially after they kidnapped the mayor of Berlin.
Det A began cross training with GSG-9 in case they had to conduct joint operations, and had a friendly relationship that allowed them to share tactics, techniques, and procedures. Six members were sent to Quantico to attend the FBI’s air crimes course. The Special Forces soldiers also received additional weapons for their new mission such as scoped Model 70 Winchesters to use as sniper rifles and Walther MPK sub-machine guns. A military transport plane was placed on standby to ferry the Det A members within striking distance of targets they may be called upon to assault in the future.
Since the main concern was a Pan Am aircraft being hijacked, the airliner allowed the Det A teams to practice taking down their aircraft but at various times they also trained to assault buses, trains, and buildings. Det A, “practiced techniques on entry into the airplane from any angle you can imagine,” Charest said. “We practiced on that plane day and night.” The unit’s newfound counter-terrorism capability would be put to the test years later, not in Europe, but in Iran during Operation Eagle Claw.
At 10:30AM on November 4th 1979, nearly 3,000 armed “university students” stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking over 90 American hostages at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The students demanded that Iran’s disposed Shah be returned to Iran from the United States to face trial. Some hostages were released, leaving 66 remaining, with six Americans who had escaped to the Swedish and Canadian embassies evacuated under Canadian passports in a well orchestrated CIA operation.
While most of the hostages were held on the embassy grounds, three were kept at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) building located 16 blocks away from the embassy grounds, including the acting ambassador and two embassy staff who had been there on official business when the embassy was taken over.
The US Army counter-terrorism unit, Delta Force, had just recently been validated following a training mission at Camp Mackall and the unit’s commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, immediately went into mission planning in case a political solution could not be found and President Carter authorized a hostage rescue. With two Delta Squadrons, Beckwith simply did not have enough operators to cover the 27 acre embassy compound while simultaneously assaulting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Beckwith, “did not want another ground force brought into play. He resisted the need for a long time but eventually had to accept the reality of two rescue locations” (Lenahan, 34).
The commander of Det A, Lieutenant Colonel Stan Oleshevic, was tasked with assembling an eight-man assault element that could infiltrate into Iran with Delta Force and rescue the hostages held in the MFA. Their portion of the mission would be dubbed, “Storm Cloud.” They then developed a tactical plan and initiated mission rehearsals. A two-man element from Det A was identified who could infiltrate Iran undercover and get eyes on the MFA building, gathering critical intelligence for the assault.
The two recon men would then exfiltrate out of Iran, and join up with five team mates from their unit at the Delta Force staging ground, making for eight man assault element. The initial recce mission was a success, one of the Det A members having himself photographed alongside a Iranian soldier, with the MFA building prominently displayed in the background. Colonel Ulrich Wegener of GSG-9 was prepared to send a German TV crew into Tehran and offered to take some Delta operators with them so they could recce the embassy grounds, but the idea died in the Pentagon (Beckwith, 223).
One of the two Det A members in Tehran had even, “gained access to the interior of the MFA building where the three American diplomats were detained” and discovered that there was a much larger security presence than they expected. For this reason, the Det A assault force had to be increased to 10-14 men. Under the leadership of Colonel Oleshevic, this was accomplished and a new Concept of the Operation was drafted (Lenahan, 98).
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has identified a suitable staging area for the rescue mission inside Iran, which became known as Desert One. However, planners needed someone to walk the terrain, needing someone, “knowledgeable, experienced, and competent” in the skills of “taking soil core samples, calibrating penetrometer readings, navigating, and taking measurements at night” as well as “installing landing instrumentation devices” (Lenahan, 72).
On March 30th, “the field survey team of Desert One was conducted by Major John Carney, a USAF Special Operations Combat Controller Team (CCT) leader. He was delivered to the site in a small civilian STOL-type aircraft operated by the CIA” (Lenahan, 95).
With the air reconnaissance and soil sample missions complete, Delta Force wrapped up their mission rehearsals in the United States was flown to Wadi Kena and then to Masirah on April 20th in conjunction with the eight man team from Detachment A that would take down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Before departing to Desert One, Major Lewis “Bucky” Burruss, Delta’s B-Squadron commander, led the men as they sung “God Bless America” just before boarding their aircraft.
Delta Force and Det A landed at Desert One, located in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert of central Iran, on the night of April 24th with the last of six aircraft setting down at midnight. Now they had to wait for their helicopters to arrive from the USS Nimitz on station in the Gulf of Oman to take them on the next leg of their journey en route to the US embassy and MFA. Rangers tasked to pull security at Desert One came from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and rode dirt bikes to help them get around the large staging area, where one soon shot a tanker truck driving down a nearby road with a LAW rocket launcher.
The helicopters were delayed several hours because of a sandstorm and a few of them were seriously damaged during the flight. Due to time delays and mechanical malfunctions, Colonel Beckwith made the difficult decision to scrub the mission. Around 2:40AM the men were preparing to abort and pull out of desert one when Major Schaefer’s helicopter crashed into one of the EC-130 airplanes. “A blue fireball ballooned into the night,” the ground force commander wrote (Beckwith, 279).
One of the Det A sergeants was out pulling security on the outer perimeter with Delta’s intelligence officer, approximately a mile away from where the airplanes were parked when he witnessed the explosion off in the distance. Jumping on the back of a dirt bike with a Ranger driving, the Det A member linked up with one of his team mates from Berlin back at the crash site. He then told the Ranger to take the dirt bike back to get Delta intel officer, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Using IV bags that the Det A men took with them on the mission for medical emergencies, they began treating members of the air crew who had been critically injured.
Looking up, one of the Green Beret’s assigned to Det A suddenly realized that one of the C-130’s was turning around and about to take off without any passengers onboard. He jumped out in front of the nose of the aircraft, holding his Walther MPK sub-machine gun, and waving to get the pilot’s attention. “I was ready to shoot those motherfuckers,” he said, not relishing the idea of being left behind. The plane ended up having 70 or 80 soldiers on board when it finally took off.
After the failure of Operation Eagle Claw and Storm Cloud, the task force went right into planning a follow up mission to rescue the hostages. It was widely believed that President Ronald Reagan would authorize the mission as soon as he was inaugurated and President Carter stepped down. The second attempt would be called Operation Snow Bird.
Detachment A soldiers were still tasked with taking down the MFA building in Tehran. This time mission rehearsals were carried out by Det A at Camp Rudder where the Florida Phase of Ranger School takes place. With new helicopters assigned to the mission, there could only be one pilot. The co-pilot would be too heavy a load for the helicopter to bear along with the assaulters due to fuel consumption issues. Just in case the pilot ended up getting shot, the Det A members were trained to fly the helicopter safely to the ground. “We all got some stick time,” Sergeant Major Jeff Raker recalled with a smile.
Just hours after Reagan was inaugurated, Iran released the remaining American hostages held in Iran, ending the standoff. Back in Berlin, Detachment A continued to conduct their unconventional warfare and counter-terrorism missions, however the later was beginning to have a detrimental effect on the unit’s operational security. The disaster at Desert One had put a spotlight on America’s counter-terrorism units and an article appearing in Newsweek exposed Detachment A’s existence. For this reason, Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) made the decision to disband the unit and start fresh with a new one.
This was the dire impact of the counter-terrorism mission, particularly when mixed with clandestine espionage activities. The kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism raised the profile of Det A, leading to its exposure in the press. For a unit like Delta Force this wasn’t as big a deal since they were a Direct Action focused unit at Fort Bragg but for a clandestine unit in Berlin, the press exposure was a disaster.
Coming up in part 4, Det A gets disbanded but is replaced by another clandestine Special Forces unit in Berlin!